The Climate Change Link To More And Bigger Wildfires

Climate Change Link to More and Bigger WildfiresClick to enlarge the image and toggle caption inciweb.nwcg.govPeople across the country have been seeing hazy skies as a result of large wildfires in Western States. Experts say that more than 3 million acres have been burned and this is only the beginning. The heatwave and historic drought have fueled forests to burn large this year, just as they did last year.According to the U.S. Forest Service, the fire season has been extended by two-and-a half months since 1970s. This is a conservative estimate. Scientists believe this number is increasing. Wildfires are also burning more land than ever before. Since 2005, the nine biggest wildfire seasons according to reliable records have been recorded.NPR's Nick Mott, editor at Montana Public Radio's podcast Fireline, spoke with Nick Mott about climate change and the west’s worsening fire season.NOTE: This interview was edited for clarity.Highlights from InterviewsClimate change is making fire season longer.Naturalists say so. Cathy Whitlock, a Montana State University paleoecologist, agrees. She said that 95% of the climate-driven effects are responsible.The 95% figure is a hot topic of discussion. She believes it is the right number, based on her extensive research into climate history over thousands of years.Is that possible?Whitlock then goes out on lakes and drills into the bottom of the mud to pull out these core samples. Wildfires deposit ash and coal on lakes which settles into the soil. These cores have records of wildfires that go back thousands of years. According to Whitlock, there is always more fire in warmer climates.She said that snowpack is less when there are warmer winters. "Snow becomes rain." The snowpack melts faster earlier in the year so there's less water at high elevations.Phil Higuera is another researcher who studies the lake mud samples. He is a professor of fire ecology from the University of Montana and just published "Rocky Mountain Subalpine Forests Now Burning More Than Any Time in Recent Millennia."Higuera stated, "For most my career, when I look at the past in a comforting manner, we see that these things that are uncommon in the human timescale have happened before." "But this paper was unique."Different ways?Fire has been an integral part of forest life cycles since the beginning. Therefore, if we look back at history and see similar rates of large fires, then maybe we are seeing something that is normal. His new paper shows how human-induced climate change is altering ecosystems in new ways and very fast. Another thing to note is that the climate can change so dramatically after a fire, the same forest won't grow back. In the wake of the fires, the landscape is literally changing.These ecosystem-level, major changes are starting to make an impact on him.Higuera stated, "What I realized was that although I spent 20 years thinking about climate change and fire regimes responding to it, I never thought about what it would be like to see that happen." "And that was surprising and a bit jolting for certain."What does an ecologist want from their science? What is the most important lesson that ecologists want land managers and the general public to learn?Fire is not always bad. This is a key lesson. Andrew Larson, a University of Montana professor of forest ecology, says fire is natural and essential for ecosystems.He said, "Fire is an inevitable part of this landscape." It's not that we live in a dangerous place. We have to let go of the illusion that forestry has given the world the ability to control fires and extinguish them. And, we must also regulate the forest accordingly. We can only say that we live in an emaciated, volatile environment. What can we do about that?Click to enlarge the image and toggle caption Victor Yvellez/Montana Public Radio Victor Yvellez/Montana Public RadioThis could be as simple as installing indoor air filters in our homes to keep us healthy in a city suffused with smoke. To make our communities more resilient, get rid of all the flammable stuff around our homes. You can even reverse the trend towards more development in forests or fire-prone areas.Another thing to remember is that fire is normal. Many forests require fire. There was plenty of natural fire in North America before Europeans arrived. Native Americans also used fire to manage their landscapes. It can open up the land and rejuvenate growth. Some species thrive on burns.Tony Incashola, Jr. is the head of forestry for the Confederated Salish Tribes of northwest Montana. We spoke with him to record the podcast. Many tribes like Incashola are trying to restore fire to the landscape.Incashola stated, "It's not just a gift for us but it's more a gift for the land."It can be difficult to see the bigger picture and embrace "good fire" when we are socked in by smoke or as the flames approach a community.